JERUSALEM — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has ended his fifth trip to the Middle East as secretary without an accord on resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But he says considerable progress has been made.
Secretary Kerry concluded four days of shuttle diplomacy Sunday, saying some very wide gaps have been narrowed in the positions of Israel and the Palestinians.
“We have made real progress on this trip. And I believe that with a little more work the start of final status negotiations could be within reach,” he said.
He said some specific details remain to worked out but he had been impressed with the seriousness of the parties and remains confident that they are on the right track.
Kerry met twice with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and three times with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu later told his Cabinet that he is willing to resume peace talks without preconditions.
He said but there were principles that we would guard strongly in the talks and first among them was security. Netanyahu said there would be no agreement that endangers the security of Israelis and any agreement, if achieved, would be brought to a referendum of the people.
The Palestinians' chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, reported that there had been no breakthrough but said Kerry's diplomacy was important to the Palestinians. He accused Netanyahu of placing obstacles to the diplomatic effort.
The peace talks have been stalled for several years. The Palestinians say they will return to negotiations if Israel stops all new construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and releases all political prisoners.
Israel says peace talks should resume without preconditions.
Kerry has said many of the disputed issues should be part of the negotiations themselves, adding that he does not want to broker endless negotiations about negotiating.
Nevertheless he said he plans to return to the region because both leaders asked him to and he believes the final goal is worth the effort.
Asked about the escalating conflict in Syria, Kerry said he hopes for progress on an international peace conference on Syria in upcoming talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at an Asia (ASEAN) regional conference in Brunei.
“There is no military solution to the problem in Syria. Now the [Bashar al-] Assad regime wants to move to the contrary. Clearly part of my conversation with Foreign Minister Lavrov and with the Russians would be how we can maximize our efforts together to have an impact on this,” he said.
The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have died in the two-year conflict between the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and anti-government rebels.
Political observers have expressed growing concern that the conflict is spreading to Syria's neighbors and aggravating sectarian tensions in the entire Middle East.